Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Status Report (ft. Angband)

Does this scroll contain the "Jihad" spell?
My plan had been to spend March cleaning up my backlist with a quick succession of entries and finish off Angband in the background. I failed in both goals. I thought I was making progress on the list, but towards the end of the month, I checked MobyGames and found more new RPGs listed in the 1980s than I'd managed to clear. Ultimately, I've decided there's nothing to do but ignore them. I can't keep flitting around the 1980s playing pseudo-RPGs forever. I've already written about most of what's worth writing about, and the few exceptions aren't worth the rest of them. I'm still working on exactly how I'll operationalize my new plan while occasionally reaching back to the past, but that's perhaps a discussion for later.

[Ed. I didn't explain this part well. Here's what this means operationally. For the past three years, I've been alternating between games in my "current" year (the maximum year I've played) and games from the earliest year that I haven't yet played. For instance, around three years ago, I went: Star Control II (1992), Nemesis (1981), Ultizurk II (1992), The Keys of Acheron (1981), Magic Tower I (1992), Sorcerer of Siva (1981), and so forth. The problem is that earlier games keep getting discovered, so that the backlist is never fully cleared and I can never focus fully on the "current" year. What I'm working on now is a formula that gives a lot more priority to the "current" year, but that doesn't mean I'll never check out one of those earlier-year games. The ratio might just be 3:1 instead of 1:1.]
As part of my jiggering, I've done a couple other things. First, I've slightly changed my criteria for what I consider an "RPG." You can find the new definition in the FAQ. The new criteria don't really change very much, but they exclude a few games whose "character development" is largely illusory.
Finally, I'm asking you not to send me any more suggestions for additions to the list. If you care that much about a game that doesn't appear on my list, get it listed in MobyGames or Wikipedia, and I'll pick it up the next time I search those sources, which I probably won't do more than twice a year. I'm sorry if that bothers anyone, but I'm convinced that 98% of games worth playing were listed in those sources when I first started this blog 12 years ago. The quest to play every RPG that ever existed was never destined to succeed, and if I'm going to miss some games, I'd rather they were Catacombs of the Phantoms and Forest of Long Shadows instead of Fallout and Betrayal at Krondor
I try to clear a room of giant fleas.
That brings us to Angband. I sank another roughly 20 hours into the game during the month of March and I can't say I made a lot of substantial progress. There's no new way to express my opinion that the game is too long except perhaps to add a few obscenities, so I'll refrain from that. No I won't. The game is too goddamned long. It's too long even if you factor in the fact that some people like long games. It's too long even if you factor in the fact that I'm playing "conservatively." I can't say it any better than Jason Dyer did last week: "I find it astounding that the first variant people cranked out wasn't 'same game, but shorter.'"
It would be sensible to ask therefore why I'm still playing it. One answer that I'm tempted to give is that the character development and inventory acquisition loop is strong enough that it encourages you to keep playing. That would be a lie, though. The game certainly has a robust character development and inventory acquisition loop, but it ruins both by being--sorry for the redundancy--too long. Getting an upgrade every 30 or 40 minutes would keep me playing. In Angband, it's been more like every three hours.
Nonetheless, those aspects of the game are relatively strong, and tetrapod was right that I should talk more about inventory. It took me a while to understand what the game was doing, mostly because it doesn't start doing it in earnest until about Level 25 (out of 100). Essentially, item bonuses, materials, and effects are all variables that can be randomized--if not in any potential order, at least in a lot of them. So a random helmet might turn out to be a Steel Helmet [5, +3] of Seeing, or an axe may turn out to be an Axe [+4, +9] of Giant Slaying. As commenters pointed out, this randomization of items, materials, and effects has tabletop roots and was seen in Might and Magic III, but there it was less important because better materials far outclassed magic effects. I seem to recall that Might and Magic VI does it much better, and there it's even a bit more like Angband in that some items are named artifacts with multiple effects.
Before anyone gets too excited about this aspect of the game, however, remember that I'm playing a very early version of Angband, and I'm not sure all the effects you know and love are here. I've rarely seen anything attached to armor, for instance. But that could also be a function of the levels on which I've been operating. I suppose that's one of the reasons I've kept playing--to see how the game changes in different phases. The upshot is that I recently found a Lucerne Hammer Holy Avenger (+10, +10) [+3], with the last statistic referring to an armor class bonus. It does reasonably well.
My current inventory of wearables. There's a lot of room for improvement in the armor area.
Aside from the length, I'm disappointed in the lack of tactics compared to, say, NetHack. Maybe that changes, too, but up through my level, with my character, the only thing that seems to work consistently is to pound on enemies with my best weapon and teleport away when my hit points get too low. I have a spell for that purpose, plus a pile of scrolls to back it up when it fails. I have yet to fight a single named enemy that did not require this strategy. Missile weapons are horribly underpowered, and wands, staves, and rods that cast things like slow monster, sleep, and confusion never work against any monster that you really need them to. I'd like to experiment more with some of my cleric spells, but I need every point for "Portal" and condition-removing spells like "Remove Fear." 
Unique enemies seem to "shrug off" everything.
Beyond that, just a lot of miscellaneous notes:
  • My character is Level 28. I have no idea what the maximum character level is but the gaps have been getting longer. To get from 28 to 29, I have to earn 50% of what I've already earned in the game.
My current character sheet.
  • The lowest dungeon level I've managed to reach is 31. I understand that some of you think I'm playing conservatively. I don't know what to tell you. I'm already leaving enemies I can't defeat on levels that I abandon. Also keep in mind that there are no scrolls of "Deep Diving" in this early edition.
  • I've died three times, too, so if I was playing with permadeath, my "conservative" playing style would still have me on my fourth character. The most dangerous situation for me is getting blinded just as I reach the threshold where it's time to teleport away. Blinding prevents you from casting spells or reading scrolls. It doesn't prevent using wands or rods of teleport, but those haven't been common. 
  • Is there a common term for rooms like this? I keep encountering them on multiple levels--rectangular rooms with one entrance, packed with the same kind of enemy.
An unfortunate random teleport puts me in a room full of trolls.
  • I keep saying "teleport," but there are actually several kinds of teleportation. If I have it right, "Phase Door" moves you the shortest distance, "Portal" a medium amount, and "Teleport" to the other side of the dungeon. There are also items that "Teleport Level" to take you to an entirely different level, "Recall" you back to town, and "Teleport Other" to move a monster instead of yourself. Those last ones are effective in a pinch, but I'd rather teleport myself and know where the monster is.
  • Aside from the length, the number one thing I hate about the game is having to hit ENTER to acknowledge messages in the middle of combat. Having to toggle ENTER and attack or movement keys is horribly annoying for reasons that's hard to articulate unless you've played it.
  • The game is inordinately fond of packs of things, including orcs and different types of magical hounds. When you see them, you sigh because you're in for a battle against 50 of them.
A pack of black orcs swarms me.
  • I've come to regard getting feelings like "lucky" and "super good about this level" as curses because I almost always have to abandon the levels before fully exploring them. On the few exceptions, I don't think I've typically found whatever made the level so good.
  • I know they're supposed to present unique challenges, but I wouldn't mind if enemies who drain experience and enemies who corrode your items were driven out of regular RPGs. In a game as long as Angband, any reversal of a player's progress seems especially cruel.
An invisible ghost drains some of my experience.
  • Perhaps the most annoying (as opposed to just difficult) enemy I've encountered so far has been magic mushroom patches. There are usually five or six of them. They attack with enormous speed, at least a couple of times in between my movements, and they cause fear, cast darkness, and blink out of existence. When you hit a patch, you get these conditions multiple times per round, sometimes requiring a dozen or more presses of the ENTER key to acknowledge all of them. Their blink ability keeps them (usually) out of melee range and their fear ability prevents you from attacking them. The only thing that's worked is to take it easy and throw items or use wands. 
  • I'm guessing rooms like the one below are the ones commenters have referred to as "vaults." I've seen them on some levels but haven't been able to loot them because of the monsters inside. This one, for instance, was full of "hummerhorns," which self-replicated faster than my ability to clear them.
A "vault"?
  • Everything at these lower levels seems to be capable of causing slow, fear, confusion, or blindness, and I haven't found anything that protects against them. Most of them also seem faster than me, and I haven't found anything that increases speed.
  • +10 seems to be the highest that you can enchant weapons to hit or to damage. Every scroll I've read has failed after hitting that limit.
  • Potions that permanently raise your attributes are rare but a joy when you find them.
  • I'm surprised at how useful "Identify" is dozens of hours into the game. A NetHack character would by now have discovered every potential item, but in Angband, the appearance of items is gated by level, so I'm still encountering scrolls, potions, wands, rods, staves, and rings that I've never seen before. I just got a Ring of Free Action for the first time as I closed this session.
  • By far, the thing I appreciate most about Angband is how if you (l)ook at a monster, you get a full description of it, including its special abilities. If it's a unique enemy, you even get a little backstory. More games ought to be doing such things like this with item and monster descriptions.
A description of a generic enemy.

 A description of a unique enemy includes a little backstory.
For the thousandth time, as I play a roguelike, I wonder why the genre had to be so light on story. Instead of useless drunks and urchins, why can't we have actual NPCs back in town, or a king who offers radiant quests like Lord British did in Akalabeth? Instead of just unique enemies on each level, why can't they be generated with little scenarios explaining their presence? Why not random encounters, perhaps with a role-playing choice, between levels? I bought Irene Gloomhaven, the board game, for her birthday this month, and she loves it. I enjoy how the city and wilderness scenarios that you draw randomly from decks give a little extra flavor in between missions. Why didn't more RPGs take that kind of approach? I like RPGs for the way that they blend mechanics and story; I rarely like one of these two elements by themselves. At least not for 40+ hours. 
That seems to be a decent segue to our next game.

Time so far: 32 hours

Monday, March 28, 2022

Game 453: Drac is Back (1981)

When did he ever leave?
Drac is Back
United States
Syncro, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1981 for Atari 800
Date Started: 20 March 2022
Date Ended: 20 March 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Very Easy (1.0/5) in the sense that you can win whenever you want; Hard (4.0/5) in the sense that it's hard to make progress. I suppose we'll split the difference at 2.5.
Final Rating: 8
Ranking at Time of Posting: 9/460 (2%)
Drac Is Back is barely a game. As you "explore" (and, wow, did the titles of the early 1980s use that term liberally) the textual rooms of Dracula's castle, you really don't make any decisions except which direction to go. Combat happens automatically, and the game automatically chooses the right weapon for each enemy. Food is eaten automatically. You pick up gold automatically. And you suffer the various vagaries of fate without any way to dodge or mitigate them.
The store is the only place you really have any choices.
The only real decisions you make are when you visit the store, particularly at the beginning, and figure out how to allocate your limited selection of funds. You want as many things as possible. Only bullets kill werewolves and only stakes kill vampires. You need armor and a sword to fight regular monsters. Crosses protect against vampire attacks; magic rings teleport you to the nearest store, and food rations are literal hit points.
A lot going on in this attack round.
Each new game, you face a random configuration of rooms in Dracula's castle. There are 200 of them in a 20 x 10 grid. An automap keeps track of which ones you've explored and the last direction you traveled from them, but not which directions are available from each room.
This must be one of the earliest appearances of an automap.
Every room can have some combination of vampire, werewolf, monster, demon, and gold. Attacking targets all monsters at once. If you have no bullets, you can't defeat werewolves, and if you have no stakes, you can't defeat vampires, so the only thing to do then is to try to evade, which gives them a free attack. 
The game screws me out of over 1,000 gold.
The game offers three levels of difficulty, but on all of them, it's hard to amass any money after the initial purchase. Anything you find goes directly into better equipment and replenishing food, stakes, and bullets. You can never pick up a room's entire treasure hoard; instead, you get a random percentage when you leave the room. And all kinds of random events conspire to swindle you of your hard-won gold. Demons rob you; Igor does the same. Dracula occasionally shows up and not only takes everything you're carrying but knocks your hit points in half, too.
Dracula shows up and wrecks me.
You can end the game in any shop, at which point you get your gold piece total and a text assessment of your effort. Mine were always: "You need more practice." I think the best rating you can get is: "You robbed Drac blind!"      
I can live with that.
The author, Ted Clawges, is credited on about half a dozen titles for Syncro in the early 1980s. Syncro was a Los Angeles-area building contractor that had a "Software Division." The owner was a Louis Clawges, so I think we can fill in the blanks. Rather than start a brand new company, Ted Clawges simply got a relative (father, brother, uncle, whatever) to agree to let him use Syncro's name, address, tax ID, and so forth. 
As is common for the early 1980s, the box is more interesting than the game.
You may be thinking that the game feels slightly like the Devil's Dungeon (1978) line that I just covered a couple of days ago. You are correct. The specifics are quite different, including using letters instead of numbers to input commands, and the automap is an original addition (making it feel vaguely related to The Wizard’s Castle), but otherwise there's a similar "feel" to the games. It wouldn't be enough for me to draw the connection in pen except that we have an earlier game by Clawges that serves as a kind of "missing link." In 1979, he wrote Devils [sic] Caverns for the Atari 800. It copies Dungeon directly, but it does so honestly, crediting the game to William Engel "with modifications" by Clawges. I also haven't seen any evidence that he marketed it commercially. Anyway, knowing for sure of his previous exposure to Dungeon, the connection to Drac becomes clearer.
Ted Clawges takes on The Devil's Dungeon with Devils Caverns.
Drac doesn't quite meet my definitions of an RPG, but I admit that if I were posting it to MobyGames (where I found it), I don't know what else I would have called it. It has a certain RPG lineage and is at least RPG "adjacent." I could have BRIEFed this one rather than numbering, but to investigate this game is to play it. I gave it mostly 1s across the board for a final rating of 8. While I was doing that, I listened to the song "Drac is Back" from funk/disco band Slave, so something positive came out of the whole experience.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Game 452: Catacombs of the Phantoms (1981)

I only ever met one phantom.
Catacombs of the Phantoms
United States
Independently developed; published in Softside magazine.
Released 1981 for Atari 800
Date Started: 19 March 2022
Date Ended: 20 March 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 11
Ranking at Time of Posting: 34/460 (7%)
Catacombs, credited to Tom Plassman, appears as type-in code in the June 1981 edition of SoftSide magazine for the Atari 800. The backstory is that a young man looking for adventure in the town of Petiteville is told, by an old wizard, of the Golden Goddess of Power, hidden in the catacombs beneath the town by the sorcerer Agalinta. The wizard warns the protagonist that the only ways out of the catacombs are death, finding the Golden Goddess, or finding "nature's entrance." He gives the boy a bag of three magical worms that can bore through stone and drop him to a lower catacomb.
The game is all-text. On each screen, you learn the room number and a list of rooms that you can access from here. You also learn any monsters or treasures in the room. Control is solely through typing in a number that conforms with your action: the room number to move to a different room, 77 to fight a monster, 88 to search a chest, 99 to drink from a fountain, 102 to use a worm, and 200 to leave via the "natural exit" in Room 0. The game is meant to be short, as there's no save option.
A typical room in Catacombs.

Comparable screen in The Devil's Dungeon.

Comparable screen from Caverns of Mordia.
If this all sounds familiar, it's because the game is plagiarized, but the question is from what previous game it is plagiarized. The most obvious answer is The Devil's Dungeon (1978), a game that also appeared as type-in code in C. William Engel's Stimulating Simulations. As you may remember from that review, a more complex version of The Devil's Dungeon appeared in 1980 [Ed. In the related entry, 1981 was established as the more probable date.] in Australia as Caverns of Mordia by Hans Coster. In an e-mail to me, Coster insisted that he wrote the game from scratch with no reference to The Devil's Dungeon, but he said that earlier versions of the game had been traded around for years before he decided to publish it commercially, leading to the possibility, however remote, that one had made its way to Florida and inspired Engel's code (Engel died in 2011). I found that idea frankly doubtful, but now Catacombs complicates things. We have to wrestle now with four possibilities.

  1. An early version of Mordia made its way across the Atlantic. Engel plagiarized it for The Devil's Dungeon. Plassman also got hold of it and plagiarized it for Catacombs.
  2. An early version of Mordia made its way across the Atlantic. Engel plagiarized it for The Devil's Dungeon. Plassman plagiarized Dungeon for Catacombs.
  3. Engel's Devil's Dungeon was first. Coster built on it for Mordia. Plassman plagiarized it for Catacombs.
  4. Engel's Devil's Dungeon was first. Coster built on it for Mordia. Plassman got hold of either the published Mordia or an earlier circulation and plagiarized it for Catacombs. [Ed. With the re-dating of Mordia to 1981, this option now seems impossible.]
I hate including #3 and #4 since Dr. Coster told me directly that Mordia was his original work, but it's been 40 years, and it's possible that he forgot he started with the Dungeon base, particularly when Mordia added so much to it. #1 and #2 seem unlikely just because some early version of Mordia would have had to make its way over here in 1977 (Engel's code was published in January 1978), and Coster's own recollections indicate he wasn't working on the game that early. 
Plassman offers his story and code.
But Catacombs actually makes #1 more credible, as there are ways that it's closer to Mordia than Dungeon. For instance:
  • Both Mordia (M) and Catacombs (C) give the attributes as strength and agility, while Dungeon (D) uses strength and speed.
  • D continually scrolls its action, where as C and M both refresh for each new room.
  • Both M and C repeat the character's name on each room screen; D does not.
  • Both M and C have a main quest, and in both games a wizard sets you on it. In D, your quest is only to acquire gold, and you seek out the dungeon on your own.
  • D just has you encounter generic "monsters"; M and C name specific monsters, with some overlap among types. Admittedly, these types are pretty common: orcs, goblins, and demons.
  • Finally, Plassman's code does not look anything like Engel's, which also had an Atari 800 version. Why would you plagiarize a game but write all new code for the same machine?
The only question in my mind is whether Plassman copied the published version of Mordia from the same year (though published solely in Australia) or some earlier version. There is some evidence for the latter. Catacombs lacks a lot of the advanced features found in the published Mordia. It has no inventory, rooms full of gas, natural disasters, or graphics, all of which spiced up the action in Mordia. It's almost as if it was based on a more primitive version of Mordia, just as Dr. Coster asserted must have been floating around prior to its official publication. In sum, #1 looks at least as likely as #4.
As in most cases of plagiarism, the author is not completely without innovation. Catacombs introduces some mechanics not seen in its predecessors. A mysterious, sexy phantom (of the title) appears occasionally to give you clues and assistance. There are occasional fountains that can be drunk from for healing. Rooms can have treasure chests, which can have fire traps, limiting the amount of gold you can collect at once. You find additional codes as you explore, randomized for each new game, such as a code that uses a "gargoyle stoning" potion and one that uses a magic mirror to detect if the Golden Goddess is on the level. 
The titular phantom gives me some help.
Win or lose, the game is pretty quick. It only supports 4 levels and 59 rooms. But it's also hard. You have to carefully evaluate the monster's statistics compared to your own, only attack those monsters with less than half your health, and flee the others. Fleeing gives them a chance to swipe at you, so I found it was best to make a node map and annotate monster locations so I didn't encounter them twice if I could avoid it.
If combat goes for more than one round, the enemy is probably too hard for you to be fighting.
Every once in a while, you find a fountain. If you drink from the fountain, you get increases to your strength commensurate with the number of experience points you've earned in combat and increases in agility commensurate with the amount of gold you've managed to loot. 
My first attempt at the big boss goes poorly.
The Golden Goddess is in a random room guarded by a giant with nearly 300 strength and nearly 60 agility. You want to have as close to that in your own stats before taking it on. Once you've defeated the monster, you can wish your way home with the artifact.
I win!
I gave it some 1s and 2s across the board (except for 0 in equipment) for a final score of 11, better than the 6 I gave The Devil's Dungeon but not as good as the 20 I gave Caverns of Mordia. I think I have identified the Tom Plassman who wrote the game, and I've sent out an inquiry, but I haven't heard back yet at the time of this entry.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

BRIEF: The Immortal (1990)

Immortality doesn't seem so great if you have to have a skull for a head.
The Immortal
United States
Independently developed; published by Electronic Arts
Released 1990 for Apple IIGS, Amiga, Atari ST, and NES; 1991 for DOS, SEGA Genesis
Rejected for: No character attributes or development
When I first launched The Immortal, I was hoping it was, in fact, a role-playing game. I like the look of it; I like the style of gameplay. I wouldn't like it for multiple games in a row, but it would have suited me nicely for a few hours this month. It would have been a nice contrast to Angband: a light, mostly action-oriented game with fairly simple controls, an oblique interface, and lots of mechanical puzzles. Kind of like a "lite" version of The Summoning
The game begins in a small chamber where you get a message from your master.
Alas, it is too "lite." The character, who you don't name, has no statistics. Combat is action-oriented, and the character only gains more power via inventory acquisition. It strikes me a lot like the UK's Cadaver (1990), released the same year.
The author, Will Harvey, was well known for his Music Construction Set (1984) for the Apple II, published when he was just 17. Before The Immortal, he wrote a shooter called Lancaster (1983) and Will Harvey's Zany Golf (1988). The Immortal was his first and only fantasy game, and in general, he's one of the most themeless developers I've ever seen. Throughout the 1990s, he mixed occasional game work with ventures into other technologies.
An enemy approaches as I consider looting a corpse.
The Immortal casts you in the role of a wizard whose mentor, Mordamir, has disappeared. The protagonist finds a message from the wizard on the top level of a dungeon, indicating he's being held prisoner at the bottom level of the dungeon. The wizard has to navigate through multiple levels, fight enemies, solve navigational puzzles, avoid traps, and collect spells, gold, and other useful items. NPCs pop up with hints or with goods for sale.
An NPC offers a hint.
Combat takes you to a special one-on-one screen with an appearance and control system that reminds me of Quest for Glory, albeit with a better sense of timing. You watch your enemy's actions and slash or stab when his guard is down (and fatigue is up) and dodge or parry when he makes his own attack. The opening combats are slow enough that you can time them perfectly, but I assume they get faster. Some versions of the game--not the DOS one that I played--have fairly gruesome enemy death animations. The wizard is shown causing their heads to explode, turning them to stone (which then crumbles to dust), and slicing them in half, spilling their innards on the floor.
The wizard's head is bowed as he suffers a hit.
Traps are more deadly than enemies. Arrows fly from the walls, pits open up beneath you, and solving puzzles the wrong way can result in instant death. My impression from online comments is that the game is known for requiring you to make multiple trips through each level, dying multiple times and learning from each death.
Arrows fly from the walls as the hero scurries through the room.
The controls are relatively simple: you either use a joystick or the numberpad as if it were a joystick. Although written originally for the Apple II GS, the game seems to have been designed with its inevitable console ports in mind. Even in the computer versions, you can't save; you can only record a "certificate" (a long save code) at the end of each level.
Just one final (spoiler) note before I move on: Even though there's virtually no backstory, the moment my character got the message from Mordamir, I guessed that Mordamir was really the bad guy and that instead of "rescuing" him from the bottom of the dungeon, you'd discover that he orchestrated the whole thing, and he'd be the final boss. I was right. It turns out that Mordamir is tricking you into killing a dragon so that he can access the Fountain of Youth that he drank from a thousand years ago. You have to use a bunch of items and spells exactly right in the final sequence to avoid the dragon's attacks and Mordamir's spells, and then get the dragon to kill Mordamir.
Not so "immortal," then. [Image from the SEGA Genesis version, courtesy of Tome's YouTube walkthrough.]
The puzzles seem a bit too deterministic for my tastes, but otherwise I wouldn't mind an RPG in this vein. Let's see what the next random roll brings me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Game 451: Goblin Mountain (1987)

The party starts out. There is no separate main title screen.
Goblin Mountain
United Kingdom
Independently developed; published as code in the June 1987 Sinclair User
Code provided for ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 12 March 2022
Date Ended: 12 March 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 14
Ranking at Time of Posting: 67/460 (15%)
Well, I'll give it this: Goblin Mountain is probably the most fun I've had with a type-in game. It offers a relatively complex experience with a fair amount of replayability. I could see 1987 me applying a little bit of imagination and spending a dozen or so hours with the game until I could afford something better.
The artist chose to depict "Goblin" Mountain with a rat.
Designed by Martin Page, Mountain builds upon his previous year's effort with Forest of Long Shadows. In the comments for that game, HappyChef suggested a relationship between it and Terrence Donnelly's board game The Mystic Wood (1980). As it happens, reviewers have also noted similarities between Mountain and Donnelly's previous game, The Sorcerer's Cave (1978). So clearly there's some inspiration going on from Donnelly to Page.
The Sorcerer's Cave (1978) involved arranging a tiled map in a way similar to this game.
Mountain plays like a more advanced Forest. There are four cooperating characters (the game is meant for one player) instead of just one per player. They explore a world of at least six 6 x 6 levels on one of four quests: Visit the Cave of Orcs; kill the Deathfiend; amass 200 experience points; and find the Scepter of Life. Character creation has you specify a name for each character (human warrior, dwarf warrior, elf warrior/wizard, human wizard), after which the game rolls for strength, endurance, magic, and agility. 
There are no NPCs in the game. Each tile can contain monsters or a treasure. Treasures include nine spell scrolls: "Fireball," "Lifedrain," "Repel," "Curse," "Teleport," "Invisibility," "Speed," "Wellbeing," and "Strongman." The first five are cast in combat and the last four outside combat. Any wizard who holds a scroll can cast the spell with magic points; points can be replenished at magic fountains. There are also magic weapons, armor, and wearables to find that directly improve your attributes or combat damage.
There's an object in this square.
For combat, you only have a couple of choices, mainly whether to try to flee and whether to cast an offensive spell before combat begins. Once fighting begins, it's resolved automatically. Character and enemy strength are compared, dice are rolled, and either a character or the enemy takes damage. A little Phantasie-like screen shows the enemies and party opposite each other as they trade blows.
A character is killed in combat against a lizard man.
The game can be quite hard. The randomization generally puts easier enemies on the first level, but sometimes there's a really tough party that you can't avoid. Traps frequently dump you down to lower levels before you're prepared, too. The key is to try to find items before losing too much endurance to enemies. I found that the "Invisibility" spell is particularly to be prized because it allows you to sneak past enemies while still grabbing items. "Wellbeing," a healing spell, is probably the most important in the game. Even with the best configuration, I found it hard to keep the entire party alive.
One of the levels I mapped. Highlighted squares have stairs down. The three squares I didn't map are probably accessed from beneath.
I won two of the quests: finding the Scepter of Life (I got very lucky with the randomization) and amassing 200 experience points. Barring luck, I think the experience point one is the easiest, since it doesn't require you to find a particular thing or place. You can just cautiously explore, fighting enemies you know you can take and running from others, until your characters have an average of 50 points each. You can get this without descending farther than Level 3. It helps that wizards get experience for casting. 
Winning the third quest.
The game technically doesn't meet my RPG definitions, since any character development is dependent on finding items, but it was short enough that I didn't much care. On the GIMLET, it does best in "gameplay" for being short and replayable, but a mixture of 0s, 1s, and 2s in everything else lands it only at a 14. I don't know--maybe it just looks good in comparison to everything else I've been dredging up these last couple of weeks.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Depictions of Native Americans in Video Games

It'll be a while before we get here.
As part of an ethics course that I teach, I've recently had my students take the Implicit Association Tests on Harvard University's web site. The tests are based on the work of Dr. Tony Greenwald of the University of Washington, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University, and Dr. Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia. They measure implicit biases by noting differences in the time it takes to associate certain groups of words with certain demographic groups. The ur example, and the most popular on the IAT web site, has the user associate good words with white faces and bad words with black faces and then reverses it. (And before you chime in with what you think are obvious objections, rest assured that the team already thought of them and has built in the appropriate controls; the FAQ addresses the most common issues.) Most white people, and even an unfortunate percentage of black people, find that they have a harder time associating positive themes with black faces. This implicit bias has obvious repercussions in any field where discretion plays a role (e.g., Does this person feel right for this job? Does this individual look "suspicious"?), and it shows that bias can still be a problem even in the absence of overt or conscious racism.
Not that there isn't plenty of overt racism, too.
I asked the students to take the white/black test and also to pick one of the other tests that interested them. I was looking through them and I saw the "Native IAT." I always feel bad about my score on the white-black test, so I figured I could feel better about myself by taking the Native American one. I can say with all honesty that I have never once had a negative thought about Native Americans as a group. I had to struggle to even think of a Native American slur. Not only that, but I also don't think I've even met anyone who expressed a racist opinion about Native Americans. If anything, I've always been exposed to positive associations. One of my earliest memories is watching I Will Fight No More Forever (1975) with my father, and having him explain how great a leader Chief Joseph was. In short, I thought, I got this.
Well, Harvard got the best of me. It turns out that the Native IAT doesn't ask you to associate good and bad things with whites and Native Americans: it asks you to associate contemporary and past things with whites and Native Americans. My scores were worse than they were on the white-black test. I may not think Native Americans are "bad"; I just think they're over. I took that test about three weeks ago, and I've thought about it every day since then. I can't decide what would be worse: being a member of a culture that the majority of people thinks is somehow "bad," or being a member of a culture that the majority of people thinks is extinct--that regards you and your family as remnants, artifacts. It made me think an entirely new way about the "sports team" controversies. Some fans think that "Braves" and "Chiefs" are the opposite of racist--that they in fact honor the people they reference. But line them up with other team names that reference peoples--Vikings, Celtics, Patriots--and it's clear what they have in common. You may draw inspiration from them, but they're part of the past.
These things were on my mind when Dr. Wendi Sierra of Texas Christian University wrote to me as part of her research into how Native Americans are depicted in video games. "Where are their homes? Are they seen as contemporary? Do they speak their indigenous language?"
Dr. Sierra's project comes from a fusion of her interests. She is a member of the Oneida Nation herself, and one of her passions is video games. She teaches Games Studies at her university, has designed a game around Oneida culture and language called A Strong Fire, and has written a 2020 book on Bethesda's Todd Howard. 
A Strong Fire includes a simple memory game with Native American images and words.
Unfortunately, the era that I've covered in this blog is one in which complex stories and NPCs have not yet emerged. But based on my limited experience, I decided that the use of Native Americans, as I've seen them, falls into essentially five categories:
1. Games in which Native Americans are basically fairy tale characters, akin to the inclusion of "Indians" in the story of Peter Pan. They're usually drawn quite broadly and use tired cliches. So you have an Indian saying "How, Pale Face" in Space: 1889 or an Eskimo saying "You use me kayak" in Tangled Tales (1989).
2. Games in which they are unapologetic enemies. These will often be set in the Old West. These are more likely to be strategy or action games than RPGs, but one weird example that I've played is Escape from Hell (1990), which is based heavily on Catholic mythology, and thus American Indians are in Hell along with all other cultures who were never baptized.  
If Dante said they were in Hell, they're in Hell.
3. The "magic Indian." This NPC helps the main character in his quest by lending his peace pipe or offering a tomahawk or whatever. I think of the Native American janitor in Elvira II (1991) or the Navajo who gives you the magic feather in Spellcraft: Aspects of Valor (1992).
The unnamed "magic Indian" in Elvira.
4. Games that depict American Indians respectfully, authentically, and with substance. None of these have come up yet on my blog, but I think some of the characters in the Red Dead Redemption games would qualify, as would Assassin's Creed III and Assassin's Creed: Valhalla.

5. Games with Native American protagonists with their own agendas and choices. This is a hypothetical category for me, but I'm sure they exist. The only game I've played where a Native American character was even an option is Don't Go Alone (1989), which depicts him wearing a feather stuck in a headband and otherwise makes no references to his background or motives. [Ed. As a commenter pointed out, Assassin's Creed III belongs more in this category. I don't know why I put it in the previous one.]
I have pasted below all the games that Dr. Sierra had identified at the time of this posting, so I would ask for your contributions. We're looking for games in which one or more characters is explicitly identified as indigenous from North America, so no games with Indian "themes" alone (e.g., one of the magic artifacts is a dreamcatcher), and no games that draw solely upon Central or South American peoples. The more obscure, the better; being a professor of game studies, Dr. Sierra has a pretty good sense of the AAA market.
Maybe in another 10 years, RPG stories will have grown complex enough that I can write about this subject properly.
1870 (2018)
Age of Empires (Definitive Edition) (2020)
Age of Empires III: Warchiefs (2006)
All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua ()
America (2001)
American Conquest: Fight Back (2003)
Apachacha (1993)
Apache Raid/Cowboys 'n Injuns (1987)
Assassin's Creed III (2012)
Assassin's Creed Rogue (2014)
Bang! Howdy (2017)
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts (2008)
Banjo-Tooie (2000)
Brave: A Warrior's tale (2009)
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show (1989)
Call of Cthulu: Shadow of the Comet (1993)
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (2013)
Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword (2007)
Civilization VI (2016)
Colorado (1990)
Cowboy kid (1991)
Custer's Revenge (1982)
Dangerous Streets (1994)
Darkwatch (2005)
Davy: King of the Wild Frontier (1985)
Disney's Pochahontas (1996)
Don't Go Alone (1989)
Don't Wake the Night ()
Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus (1991)
Empire of the Sin (2020)
Empire: Total War (2009)
Escape from Hell (1990)
Expeditions: Conquistador (2013)
Fatal Fury series (1998/1999)
Fight 'N' Jokes (1997)
Fighters Megamix (1996)
Gun (2006)
Gun Smoke (1985)
Gun: Showdown (2006)
Hammer boy (1991)
Indian Attack/Apache Raid (1983)
Indian Battle (1980)
Infamous: Second Son (2014)
Kane (1985)
Kasumi Ninja (1994)
Killer Instinct (1994/2013)
Kona (2017)
Legend of Pochahontas (2002)
Lego Chess (1998)
Lone Ranger (1991)
Meriweather: An American Epic (2017)
Metal Gear Solid (1999)
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015)
Mortal Kombat (2011) (2011)
Mortal Kombat 3 (1995)
Mortal Kombat X (2015)
Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (2006)
Mortal Kombat: Deception (2004)
Never Alone (2014)
Nightmare Circus (1996)
Oregon Trail (1985)
Outlaws (1997)
Peter Pan: Adventures in Neverland (2002)
Prey (2006)
Quick draw mcgraw (1990)
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)
Red Dead Revolver (2002)
Rochard (2011)
Santa Fe Mysteries: The Elk Moon Murder (1996)
Shadow Hearts: From the New World (2005)
Shadowrun (1993)
Shadowrun (1994)
Sid Meyer's Colonization (1995)
Space 1889 (1990)
SpellCraft: Aspects of Valor (1992)
Street Fighter series (1987-2020)
Sunset Riders (1991)
Tao Taido (1993)
Tekken series (1994-2017)
Tengai Makyō: Daiyon no Mokushiroku (1997)
Terra Nova (2019)
The Raven And The Light (2015)
This Land is My Land (2019)
Thunderbird Strike (2017)
Total War: Medieval II (2006)
Turok series ()
Turok: Evolution (2002)
Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 (1995)
Virtua Fighter (1993)
Virtua Fighter 3 (1996)
Virtual Fighter 2 (1994)
Virtual Fighter 4 (2001)
Virtual Fighter 5 (2006)
Virtual Fighter Kids (1996)
Werewolf: The Last Warrior (1990)
Westerado: Double Barreled (2015)
When Rivers Were Trails (2019)
Whomp Em (1991)
Wild West Guns (2008)
Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990)